Turning Crappy Images Into Beautiful Covers: Designing Book Covers With Bad Stock
My fiance, Michael Meadows, is the man behind all of my beautiful covers. He’s designed every last one of them! Because I know a lot of indie authors struggle with making professional covers, we’re not only offering his services for a small fee, I’ve also asked him to write a series of blog posts. I hope you’ll enjoy and learn something from it, and don’t be afraid to leave a comment asking any questions or suggesting a topic for him.
The first consideration that anyone should take when making a cover is the stock. Ideally, you have space at the top and/or the bottom for your title, and your name. Look at any professionally-designed cover, when you get a minute. Looking across the room at my bookshelf, I’ll link a few examples:
Publishing houses spend money hiring photographers and painters to make their covers. For them, it’s a reasonable investment, especially since it often ends up being more of a business relationship than a one-off commission, so you routinely and reliably get good results for title after title.
Most of us don’t have the opportunity to work with artists like that. We buy stock photos, and therein lies the rub. In some rare cases, there are easy solutions. The cover for Monarch Mind, for example, was a dream to design. The white space is just there, and I don’t have to work to find a way to make it fit. That’s why I was able to be very subtle with the grey text: I wasn’t worried about it competing with anything.
Other times, the image is quite vibrant, but ultimately they have negative space that you can fill with text. In my experience, most images can be treated this way. Both stories in The Tempest series (link and link) were like this, for example. The focus of the images is the girl, and I can put anything above the eye that I like because it’s only background, so long as you can still tell what it is.
That’s what you want in an ideal stock image situation, but you can’t always have your ideal. Look at a few covers that weren’t as ideal as I would have liked from our catalogue, for example: The Billionaire’s Maid, the BBW Billionaire Anthology, or Bratty Babysitters Get Spankings.
The first and biggest problem is any shift between dark and light. In a situation like the Paranormal Mega Bundle (or its sequel) it’s easy to put white over the image, because ultimately you have dark colors surrounded by other dark colors. The situation there is easy to work with. High contrast is king here, and makes cover design that much easier.
Almost anything else, like visible nipples, can be easily fixed with careful placement of text and perhaps a little bit of PhotoShop. However, it’s very difficult to read light text on a light background, or dark text on a dark background.
There are a few solutions to this that are common, and you should learn how to use all of them when you can. The ability to deal with stock in a way that maintains readability is probably the single thing that I continue to struggle with, almost a year after we started working on these titles.
FRAMING THE PHOTOGRAPH
The first option is to create a situation like the one I had with the stock for Monarch Mind (above) artificially, by using a frame. This is very easy, though it requires a very big decision about background color, which should complement the image.
A few professional examples of this technique at work include:
Beatrix Potter’s The Complete Tales
Jack Ridi’s Literature, The Portable Anthology
Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary
This style has, for the most part, fallen out of favor. The majority of examples I have seen are of anthologies for obvious framing like this. A less obvious, outdated method is to use stock that creates a framing effect, such as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. This allows you to have vibrant background images that don’t take up space reserved for the important text, without needing to resort to a style that has by-and-large fallen out of favor.
FRAMING THE TEXT
This is a similar concept to the above, but instead you are creating a space for the text, and the text alone. There’s not much to explain here as far as implementation, as I explained it earlier. Examples:
Nora Roberts’s Dark Witch
Nicholas Sparks’s books (almost) all use this style as a brand: The Choice, The Wedding, A Bend in the Road
Nicholas Sparks uses this style exclusively. The exceptions, of which I found only a few, were all for books that had been made into films. This is a common promotional tactic, and since none of us have movie studios beating down our doors it’s fair to say that he always uses this style.
It is still a little bit old-fashioned, but hasn’t fallen out of favor like the first style.
Essentially, this is the 3rd method for creating a flat background: A stripe underneath the text. These can take many forms, and often it’s as simple as a block across the bottom and/or top of the cover. A few varied examples:
Alice Munro’s Dear Life
Tom Clancy’s Command Authority
R.A. Salvatore’s Homeland
Note that like the Clancy example, you can take up a considerable amount of space: his other covers often muddy the waters by having three or more stripes, leaving only an inch and a half or so of stock image. The Salvatore example is to demonstrate that it doesn’t need to be simple, either. You will have to use your own creativity here, if you want to think outside the box, as it’s not fair to say that there is any one-size-fits-all answer to this problem.
SIMPLE TEXT FORMATTING
There is one more solution, and the one that I use almost exclusively in Dalia’s covers: White text, black outline, drop shadow. The black outline fades on dark backgrounds, but the white text stands out. On the other hand, when the white text would be washed out on a light background, the black outline stands out just as much. This is by far the easiest method, and I think Dalia prefers I do it this way, rather than cropping her stock.
The genre images on the homepage for DaliaDaudelin.com use this technique
Virgin’s First Threesome
the After 50 Shades Anthology
It should be noted that you don’t necessarily need to have a black outline and a shadow. I have used one or the other multiple times, for example in Curvaceous Company Girl there is no shadow, while in the Rape Fantasy Bundle I did not use any outline.
One other thing that it is important to keep in mind, when using outlines, is that often they can make the shape of the letters lose definition. To solve this problem, I prefer to place text on two layers, with the back layer having an outline and the front layer being without an outline.
I hope that I’ve given a few ideas and suggestions that might help. In my opinion, again, this is the single most troublesome thing about using pre-made stock, which often is not entirely suitable for my needs as a cover designer. As you try to move forward in your self-publishing, remember that you can always learn new ways to help yourself utilize the tools at your disposal better, but without a rich uncle you’re probably not going to get markedly better tools in the foreseeable future. This is how you make your money, and the cover is one of the most important parts.
If the customer can’t read your cover, then they won’t buy your book. For me, that’s reason enough to push through the annoyances.